It's my contention that we foreigners need to take a huge step back from our condescending attitudes about China, even when there's good reason for those attitudes.
"Oh lord, it's hard to be humble," went the old song lyric, and it's true in China when you come from a culture that produced the automobile — as well as proper traffic control — the airplane, the computer, the internet, and the handkerchief. (To my friends who think the handkerchief is old-school, just wait till you come to China and see the old men hawk up giant-sized lugies and splat them onto the sidewalk right in front of where you're walking, and ask whether the handkerchief is a technological improvement.) Indeed, it's hard to be humble, when the Chinese frequently act like such third-world rubes.
To me, though, the message of these experiences is how quickly China has advanced. They've gone from Medieval to Modern in half my lifespan, and that should be admired — even as I reserve the right to laugh a little bit at the Medieval remnants that persist.
A couple days ago, Ma Lei's mother gave her a phone call, worried about our upcoming trip to Beijing. They've never flown before, so they don't know how it works, and Mother was concerned that our schedule was too tight. "Are you sure we'll get there early enough to get a seat?" she asked, "And should I bring a little stool in case we have to sit down the aisle?"
You see, on a Chinese long-distance bus or train, there are regulations that say you can't stand in the aisle or sit without a proper seat, but those regulations exist only on paper. Everyone taking a long-distance bus in China (2 hours or more) will either bring along a small fold-out seat or expect the bus operator to have them. A plane is really just a bus with wings, so why not hedge our bets by bringing along little stools?
One of Ma Lei's online friends told her a story, which I don't know the provenance of. It was told to Ma Lei as if it were something that her friend had personally observed, but it could be something she got online. Anyway, I pass it on without swearing that it's the fact...
An old farm-woman got ready to take her first flight. Like someone preparing for his first bullet-train experience, she wanted to get a seat with a view. She saw that there were seats to the right, as she got onto the plane, but then there were these seats off to the left that had the best possible view. So she turned left and plopped down in the captain's seat.
As the story was told to Ma Lei, and then to me, the pilot came in and told the woman she had to leave. But being an elderly Chinese, and expecting people to give up their seats for her, she refused. Who are you, little man, to insist that I give up this super-comfortable chair with the great view out the front window?
Again, I can't swear it's all true. But as told to me the pilot whopped her a few good ones on the head, then she realized she was in the wrong place. She finally got up and allowed herself to be guided back to her proper seat.
I hope that story isn't actually true, but it could be. It's not impossible that a Chinese nongcunren — a rube — would be so ignorant of the norms of air travel. After all, the standards that apply to their train travel are completely different from the way one has to behave when flying. It's fine to laugh at her, but let's not forget what fish out of water we would be if we had to survive in Chinese farm country for a while.
In a way, hats off to China. They've got a population which is still majority-underclass, yet they're developing an infrastructure of modernity. The mere fact that my wife's family — brutalized during the Mao era — impoverished and reduced to subsistence farming — with close cousins who died of starvation while I was a well-fed boy in America — could now be flying to Beijing... That's pretty cool.